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Steelers' 'Aunt Rita' won't sell stake in team

Luis Fábregas
| Friday, July 25, 2008

This could be the year Aunt Rita makes it to Steelers training camp.

If Rita McGinley has her way, she'll scoot around in a golf cart, soak up some sun and finally meet Big Ben.

"They'll probably take me to see where the players eat," she said. "I'd like to see the new Chuck Noll Field. I've heard it's nice."

The frail but elegant McGinley won't need any special permits to get into camp. She controls 10 percent of the Steelers, an ownership stake that dates back to the 1940s when her father, Barney, teamed with the late Art Rooney Sr. to buy back the fabled franchise he briefly sold.

Despite her family's long-standing ties to the Steelers, McGinley has never been to training camp.

McGinley, who guards her age better than most linemen protect their quarterback, knows her name doesn't carry the clout of the Rooneys but is intent on keeping her share of the team partly controlled by her nephews. Altogether, the McGinleys own 20 percent of the team.

"I'm going to say no," McGinley said Thursday when asked if she'd consider selling her share. "I think there should be something left of what my father did. He was always very active with the team."

Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney appears to harbor similar thoughts about his family's legacy. Rooney and his four brothers control 80 percent of the team.

Two mandates are forcing them to restructure the ownership of the franchise: NFL rules that forbid them from continuing increasingly lucrative gambling ventures at their horse and dog tracks in Florida and New York, and looming estate taxes that could halve the team's value.

In order to maintain the longtime Rooney connection to the Steelers, Dan Rooney would like his brothers to sell him their portion of the team, estimated to be about 16 percent each. The brothers also are entertaining an offer from billionaire investor Stanley Druckenmiller.

McGinley said she has not been approached by either Druckenmiller or the Rooneys for any type of ownership discussions. Druckenmiller in 2006 approached the McGinleys but was rebuffed.

But what if they offered her $100 million or $200 million• The team, after all, is believed to be worth $700 million to $1.2 billion.

"I'm going to stick with what I said," she said.

During an interview in her office at the U.S. Steel Tower, where she manages a charitable foundation, McGinley displayed several facets of her personality -- thoughtful, candid, generous and, yes, a rabid Steelers fan.

"I've been known to twirl a Terrible Towel," she said, wearing a perfectly fitted blue suit and pearl earrings. "But only when I know everyone is safe, and we're going to win."

Her eyes lit up every time she mentioned her father, who along with Art Rooney Sr. -- also known as "The Chief" -- operated the Rooney McGinley Fighting Club, which organized boxing matches.

The two were close friends whose families vacationed together. When the opportunity came to buy shares of the Steelers, Rooney wound up with about 60 percent and McGinley with about 40 percent, Rita McGinley said.

The two families further bonded when Art Rooney's sister, Marie, married Rita McGinley's brother, Jack.

"It's like a puzzle," said McGinley, who grew up in North Braddock and once worked as a teacher and guidance counselor.

When McGinley's parents died, Rita McGinley and her three siblings retained control of the McGinley shares. The widow of one brother, Bill, eventually sold her 10 percent share to the Rooneys. A sister, Mary Ann, died in 1983 and left her share to Rita. Her nephew, John McGinley Jr., and his siblings control the remaining 10 percent.

With 20 percent under her control, McGinley figured she could sell half of it and get enough money to establish a charitable foundation, known as the Rita M. McGinley Foundation.

Since 1988, the foundation has given on average $350,000 a year to pay for college scholarships and help the homeless, John McGinley said.

Two favorite charities are the Jubilee Kitchen in the Hill District and the Little Sisters of the Poor in the North Side.

McGinley, who never married, learned the traits of generosity and kindness from her father, whose pictures are found among dozens of frames and Steelers memorabilia hanging in her office.

"People would come to him if they needed money, and he would help them," she said.

At the foundation, McGinley makes her own decisions about who will get her help. She visits the office every Thursday, using a metal walker supported partly by a tennis ball. When she isn't tending to her philanthropic affairs, McGinley likes to watch TV, listing as her favorites "CSI," "NCIS" and "Boston Legal."

On Steelers Sundays, she watches the game on TV at her home in Oakland, often turning down the volume when she disagrees with an announcer's comments.

"I've even disagreed with Myron Cope," she said, laughing.

She sat with her sister Mary Ann in the family's box at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 23, 1972, minutes before the Immaculate Reception.

"We were sitting with our heads down thinking it was all over, so we weren't even looking," she said. "When someone started poking us in the back and screaming, we just couldn't believe it."

Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris remain her two favorite Steelers.

"He won those four Super Bowls," she said about Bradshaw, the first quarterback to ever do so. "He'd be tackled and all of a sudden he would score a touchdown. I'd be like, 'How'd he do that?'"

She hasn't met Ben Roethlisberger, although she cringed when asked about his 2006 motorcycle crash. She is pleased with coach Mike Tomlin's accomplishments so far, even though she secretly lobbied for Ken Whisenhunt to get the top job in January 2007.

Not that she wants to be more involved. McGinley is happy to toil in relative anonymity and watch her beloved team from afar.

"When you're a minority owner, you don't have too much say," she said. "You can disagree with what they do, but they'll do it their way anyway, and that's fine with me."

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